Birding South Central Utah
We just spent a week in southern Utah and, as usual, it was glorious. Our headquarters is the strategically located little town of Torrey, Utah. From there, it’s about 20 minutes to the red rock playland of Capitol Reef National Park (highway construction added some delays this year), 20-40 minutes to two different 10,000 foot mountains, and 20 minutes to some wide-open agricultural fields. That’s a big variety of habitat within striking distance. Despite the arid climate, there are creeks and rivers running here and there all around, great for cooling off and attracting birds. The place is just as amazing at night as it is during the day. Torrey is a designated International Dark Sky Community. Even when the moon is almost full (as it was while we were there), the stars at night are mindblowing. For an L.A. resident, it’s awesome to walk outside at night, look up, and straight-up see the Milky Way. Torrey is certainly off the beaten path, and much of the good stuff is down dirt roads. The beauty and solitude (especially compared to Zion and Bryce Canyon and Arches) more than make up for the extra effort it requires.
I’ve been seeing Sandhill Cranes in the agricultural fields around Torrey since 2013. At first, I thought it was a pretty good find. eBird was in its infancy at the time, and this is not an area with a lot of eBird submissions, so there weren’t many reports at all. Moreover, the map in the Sibley guide we had indicated sightings were rare in southern Utah (the 2nd edition still shows it as rare). The Nat’l Geographic Field guide indicated they aren’t in southern Utah. The Audubon Field Guide is the same. But they’re all wrong. There are Sandhill Cranes here every summer. At least, they’ve been there every July and August I’ve been there. One year I saw a group of 38 together in a field.
The inaccuracy of the distribution map for Sandhill Crane is not my point, though. The point is: beyond seeing Sandhill Cranes, I never spent much time watching them or learned anything about them. In nine years, I didn’t once pause to wonder what it was that Sandhill Cranes eat. All the Sibley Guide says is “picks food from ground.” If I’d thought about it, I’d have guessed that meant seeds and grains and bugs. That would have been a correct, but incomplete, answer. As we were driving by a field with two Sandhill Cranes, I noticed each one picking up some big, bulky item and tossing it back to the ground, and then pick it up again. I pulled the car over and zoomed in with my camera. Was it cow dung? Nope. This pair of Sandhill Cranes were tossing field mice around. I don’t know why this surprised me so much. Given their size, they must chow down for meals from time to time. And I’ve never blinked when a Great Blue Heron wolfed down a fish or frog, so why wouldn’t a big crane similarly go for big prey? I did some internet research, and Sandhill Cranes are omnivores who will eat snakes, lizards, fish, rodents, and small birds. That’s one of the things about birding – it’s so much more than ticking off a species and moving on. Spend some time watching, or happen by at the right time, and you see cool stuff.
I didn’t see any lifers on the Utah trip this year. It’s the 8th time I’ve been there during July-August, and I’ve pretty much exhausted any likely lifers that are around during that time of year. But I did see a lot of familiar birds I don’t get a chance to see in Los Angeles. This included Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Black-billed Magpie, Virginia’s Warbler, Northern Goshawk, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Grace’s Warbler, and Cordilleran Flycatcher. A couple of surprises this year were an American Dipper on Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef, a Williamson’s Sapsucker on Moulder Mountain, and a California Gull on a reservoir.
Despite a trio of trips to the high mountains, hoping to stumble into the path of the elusive Dusky Grouse, I struck out again this year. I did manage to visit some beautiful lakes, including the one below that had a lone Spotted Sandpiper. Access was quite easy on Thousand Lake Mountain – the roads are dirt, but well-maintained. Four-wheel drive isn’t necessary to get almost to the top. Boulder Mountain, on the other hand, is rougher going off the paved highway. To my delight, I didn’t see or hear a single ATV this year. They look like fun, but they’re loud, ruin the serene mood, and don’t help with bird-finding.
I’d love to visit this area during spring or fall migration, just to see what it’s like. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, I don’t imagine it’s much of a flyway. But who knows? Before this year, I would’ve said that Sandhill Cranes don’t eat mice. But they do. Maybe Torrey and Capitol Reef are great spots for migrants.